Pick a State University for the Right Reasons

Ask these six questions to help find the right academic fit.

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While the Ivy League and other super-select universities grab much of the media attention, most teenagers end up attending their own state schools.

What intrigues me about this is how these students go about picking which state institutions they wish to attend. When I ask teenagers why they are enthusiastic about particular state schools, I often hear these sorts of responses:

It's my mom or dad's alma mater.


I love its football or basketball team.
My boyfriend/girlfriend is going there.
It's not far away. To me, all these responses suggest that teenagers aren't carefully researching the schools on their wish lists. I'm not, by the way, suggesting that students who attend private institutions don't do the same thing. It's easier, however, to research a small college than a university with 30,000 students. After all, where do you begin?

[See rankings of the top public universities.]

Not doing your homework, however, can lead to bad outcomes.

Not long ago, for instance, I bumped into a woman at a party, whose daughter was a freshman at the University of California—Berkeley. Her daughter was a smart student, but she was also quite shy. The girl was experiencing adjustment problems at UC Berkeley, which many parents and counselors have told me is a brutally competitive school.

When I asked the mom why her daughter had picked Berkeley, she responded that it was a family tradition to attend the flagship. Wow.

The best way to find a good academic fit is to ask intelligent questions. Here are six to get you started:

1. Is there a learning community at the university? An increasing number of public universities are establishing learning communities, which aim to help freshmen make a successful transition to college. Bowling Green State University and Evergreen State College serve as clearinghouses on learning communities. Students who participate in learning communities generally enjoy higher grade point averages and are more likely to stay in school beyond freshman year.

2. Does the university offer an honors college? Many state universities offer honors colleges because the institutions want to compete with private colleges and universities for the brightest applicants. Honors colleges will often offer students smaller classes, access to better adviser programs, priority with class schedules, and nicer dorms.

3. Does the university offer a writing center? Writing centers are often overlooked—which is too bad because so many students are graduating without knowing how to write an essay or research paper, much less a cogent cover letter. The staff at a university writing center can help students learn how to write and edit papers, which they often won't get in their classrooms. A mom complained to me recently about a flagship institution where the exams in the freshmen English classes required no writing at all. The English tests were the fill-in-the-dot variety!

[Read 7 Research Tips for College Papers.]

4. What are average class sizes? You shouldn't assume that the published student-teacher ratios are accurate. Some institutions, for instance, include professors who never teach undergrads. Schools may also include graduate assistants. Ask schools about average sizes of their introductory courses and the advanced courses in a particular major. Once you're in your major, you want small classes.

5. How good is the university's advising program? One reason why some college students don't graduate in four years is because they receive lackluster academic advice. It took the son of a friend of mine seven years to graduate from San Diego State and one reason for the delay was poor class-selection advice that he received as a freshman. Are students assigned an adviser in their intended majors or must they rely on whoever is available at the advising center? I would recommend that students check with an adviser every semester to make sure they are taking the right courses.

6. What is the four-year grad rate of the university? I know I've mentioned grad rates before, but it's only because it's so important to get your classes and graduate on time.